Sunday, April 10, 2005

We Know Nothing

The scientific method is one of the most wonderful inventions of mankind. With it, we have uncovered a multitude of discoveries.

Yet with all we know, there are some things of which we know remarkably little. Here are some that I ponder (weak and weary)...

1. Consciousness - what is it? It could be that the problem is phrased poorly, since a definition of consciousness seems difficult to agree to. Talk of qualia, neural correlates (NCC), and the "hard problem" of consciouness are attempts at definitions, but still have the same vagueness, unable to tie to concrete representation. Perhaps sentience is a better concept to uncover, ie, what makes a thinking being? Do we have free will? Do other species think? Why do we laugh? Why do we sleep? We can't explain *any* of this yet.

2. Time - what is it? It's easy to toss out "fourth dimension" and "fabric of space-time", but our understanding of time is extraordinarily limited. Why does it flow in one direction? Can we reverse time, or move back through time? Is time quantized, or is it analog? (Is there a minimum discrete unit of time? Perhaps the "time" it would take light in a vacuum to move a Planck length?) Are time and space separable (ie, can we move faster than light? If you believe Lorentz rather than Einstein we can - and quantum "action at a distance" would certainly indicate Einstein had a hole.

3. Gravity. We really haven't a clue as to what causes gravity. Einstein described it as a curvature in the fabric of space-time. But this is descriptive rather than explanatory and says nothing about why this stuff we call matter has an inherent property of an attractive force to other matter. Other theories posit it as a normal electromagnetic force - a "drag" caused by the quantum vacuum. This is a little more interesting, but still unproven. Bottom line - we really have no idea why gravity sucks.

4. Life - what is it? Like consciousness, we can't even agree on a definition for what is alive and what is not alive. For example, living things ingest energy and emit waste products (or some variant of the two), but so do cars. Living things replicate and change via mutation and selection, but so do certain computer programs, while some forms of life, such as sterile cross breeds, vasectomy patients, and post-menopausal women, do not. Everything, from rocks to humans, are made up of the same basic ingredients. At what point does a combination of certain atoms in certain ways become alive? How does entropy reverse itself in discrete pockets of the universe, creating order from disorder? And then, for no apparent reason, reverse itself yet again and cause life to end in death?

5. Emergent properties - reductionists believe that if the fundamental "particles" of space-time are understood, and if you could theoretically set initial parameters, then the result can be predicted. This is core to the quest for the Theory of Everything (TOE). But at 10120 bits, there isn't enough computing power in the universe as we know it to even predict a tiny subset of outcomes in the real world. What's required is an understanding of "higher order" physical laws, the ones which describe emergent properties of complex systems. Why? Because we can't even begin to explain why complex properties emerge from more basic components; how does the "macro" world emerge from the quantum world? How does life, consciousness, space-time, or anything else on this list emerge from the fields of string theory?

6. Where are they? Fermi's paradox wonders if there are other planets, and some of these are capable of sustaining life, and some portion of these become intelligent, (and with what we know so far, the answers to these are yes, yes, and likely - see Drake's Equation), then where the hell are the little green men? They should be all over the place. (The scary part here is that most of the proposed explanations for why this is so don't bode well for mankind.)

Let me briefly address the "obvious" answer I hear from certain friends - "God". This is a cop out. The use of the word "God" here means "anything I don't understand can be ascribed to God" (or in the more devout, "anything (period) can be ascribed to God". Fortunately, there have been enough people in the world for whom this explanation is insufficient, who went on to hypothesize and experiment to discover the reality of reality.

We've only scratched the surface!

How I wish I could live long enough to see real progress on these ideas...


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